In the Language of My Captor

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Noise Requires Poetry: The Millions Interviews Shane McCrae

“America I am unnameable.” Several poems in Shane McCrae’s new book, The Gilded Auction Block, begin with America: the idea, the myth, the collective body. The speakers of his poems are nearly ecstatic with frustration: tired and terrified, they are convinced “America you wouldn’t pardon me.”

Shane McCrae has many
gifts as a poet, but among his most hypnotizing is his ability to create poems
that simultaneously blare and beacon. Since his first book, Mule, in 2011, McCrae has been creating
ambitious work that demands—earns—our attention. I often feel out of time when
I am reading his words; they arrive with a Miltonic fury, and yet they are so
contemporary and critical for our present, strange world.

We spoke about our current
political fever, Hell, and how poems sometimes have to wait for the right
moment to arrive.

The Millions: I don’t know if there’s an ideal way to read a particular book of poetry, but I read The Gilded Auction Block after midnight, at my desk, in what seemed like phosphorescent light. I had the feeling of being consumed by the book—particularly “The Hell Poem”—and each time I turned back to the cover, Ulisse Aldrovandi’s monstrous image unnerved me further. It’s rare to experience a book that hits so hard on the levels of form and function and feeling, which leads me to wonder: How did this book come together for you? How did you go about structuring, ordering, arranging these pieces into their profluent whole?

Shane McCrae: Thank you so much for the kind words about the book. Well, “The Hell Poem” came first. In 2014, I got it into my head that I wanted to write a Dante-esque, Inferno-ish poem, which is a terrible thing to get into one’s head—although there is something to be said for going into the writing of a poem knowing it will be impossible for the end result to be anywhere near as good as its inspiration. So I wrote a few sections of “The Hell Poem,” got stuck, and then abandoned the poem. Not long after that, I wrote In the Language of My Captor. Then Trump was elected. And immediately I felt I had to write something in response to Trump’s election, and wrote “We’ll Go No More a Roving.” Maybe a month or so after that, I wrote “Everything I Know About Blackness I Learned from Donald Trump,” and poems along the lines of that poem followed. Eventually, I started thinking about “The Hell Poem” again, and realized there was a place for Trump in it—indeed, I think the reason I had gotten stuck was that the poem was waiting for Trump.

TM: In other interviews, you’ve spoken with illuminating complexity about confessional poetry, noting that “in some very actual ways the confessional mode, strictly speaking, is not possible for non-write writers” because the confessional condition “assumes a fall from grace, but only whites occupy the initial position vis-à-vis grace from which the confessional poet must fall.” Yet you’ve also described a simultaneous pull toward that space of confession in verse, and I think one of the many powerful modes of The Gilded Auction Block is that the book feels kenotic (both metaphorically and theologically)—an emptying on the way toward reception. Was there a kenotic sense for you in writing these poems—and if so, what has been emptied, and what might be received?

SM: Oh, I wouldn’t describe anything I’ve ever done as kenotic, not thoroughly—kenosis is something I think one works toward one’s entire life. But I also think I never manage to really empty myself when writing my autobiographical poems—that’s why I keep returning to certain figures, particularly my grandmother. I don’t ever—not that I can recall at the moment—feel satisfied by the writing of my more autobiographical poems. I can manage to get my non-autobiographical poems to seem finished to me, but my autobiographical poems always seem not quite right. They are the poems I consistently abandon.

TM: Your previous book, In the Language of My Captor, begins with the poem “His God,” which includes the lines “his    / God is a stranger // from no country he has seen.” The Gilded Auction Block begins with “The President Visits the Storm,” which includes a clever allusion to Mary’s Assumption and an ominous nod toward the Book of Revelation—both skillful touches that feel like transfigurations. I enter both books thinking about forms disembodied, and looking for the places of souls. Considering this book is peppered with quotations and permutations of Donald Trump, how have these past years had you thinking about bodies?

SM: Well now I simply do not have a good answer for this—not yet. Let’s see. The reason I initially felt like I didn’t, and wouldn’t, have a good answer for this question was that I don’t really sit around thinking about bodies—I don’t often think about the things it seems smart people think about. But I do think about the bodies of poems sometimes, and I have lately become intrigued by what seem to me to be the contradictory dominant impulses behind the forms of the poems of younger poets writing today—an impulse to expand, and an impulse to compress. Often one will see poems that open up a lot of space inside themselves by expanding across and down the page. But one also sees a lot of prose poems, which, even though they are written from margin to margin, seem very compressed to me—they’re very dense. And I think each of these impulses has to do with the ear rather than the eye. Each, I think, responds to a desire to make the music in poems more apparent than it would otherwise be—or, at least, to make the poet’s attitude toward music more apparent. The spread-out poem isn’t so certain readers will notice its music; the prose poem is more trustful. But I think the popularity of the prose poem is a holdover from life before Trump. Who feels confident their body will be recognized and acknowledged for what it is nowadays?

TM: We’re both editors for Image Journal, a magazine that publishes writing “informed by or grappling with religious faith.” One of your own poems for the magazine that appeared a few years ago ends with the lines “Lord forgive my torturers // Who hate my faults    as if my faults were theirs.” It makes me think of something you said upon publication of your first book, Mule, quipping “I wrote a bunch of poems about God.” I’m drawn to ambitious writers like yourself and Katie Ford, whose religious and theological grappling has a rich poetic lineage. What draws you toward God—in poetry, and in life? Who are poets of doubt and faith whose work has influenced or interested you?

SM: I believe God is; I have no doubts about the existence of God. And I think it’s God’s very being that draws me toward God. If one believes God is, how can one be otherwise but drawn toward God? That said, I find the mystery(ies) of God overpoweringly attractive—when thinking about God, one inhabits a space in which one can think forever. That’s nice. And with regard to thinking, I suspect I’ve been most profoundly influenced and interested by Jorie Graham and Susan Howe—both of them say deeply true things about how the mind works. As for poems that have more explicitly to do with God, I think I’ve been most influenced and interested by George Herbert.

TM: “And even in my dreams I’m in your dreams” ends one of your poems in this new book—a work, like several others, that includes Trumpian excerpts and exhortations. Your book feels like a lament for our age, or perhaps a catalog of spiritual exhaustion: “America I was driving when I heard you / Had died I swerved into a ditch and wept.” How does it feel to have a book publish now, when the murmurs of a coming election are nearing a crescendo? What might the place of poetry be in a world so full of noise?

SM: I think noise requires poetry, because I think poetry requires a retreat from noise. Although, you know, it’s a book of poetry, and so is unlikely to have a huge reach. I hope nonetheless that The Gilded Auction Block might make some positive contribution to the discourses about Trump and about America. When FSG took the book, there was some feeling that it needed to be published as quickly as possible—both because it was maybe timely, and because, at the time, it was thought that Trump’s presidency might be brief. I feel as if every moment of every day I am actively wishing Trump weren’t president; since he is president, I hope my book, in its small way, can work against him.

TM: I’ve already mentioned “The Hell Poem,” the masterful, long poem that anchors The Gilded Auction Block, but wanted to speak about it more. I’ve read other poets who are transformational with language—giving us new ways to see—but you also have a transfigurative sense, of creating, like Dante and Milton, a surreal world in a poem that still feels grounded in earthly suffering. I’m even reminded of Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony; I feel out-of-this-world, and yet reminded of my form: “At that a darkness like the darkness / Before the world was overtook me.” What route led you toward this Hell poem? What caused this poetic descent?

SM: Folly. Folly got me going, and folly kept me going. The poem came out of nowhere, and in retrospect I think if I had planned it out a little I could have saved myself a lot of work. After I got stuck writing “The Hell Poem” (as I mentioned above), I decided that I had gotten stuck because I didn’t want to write anybody into Hell. And the obvious—to me, at least—solution was to write a poem set in Purgatory instead. So I wrote a considerably longer poem set in Purgatory which I now think was a near-total failure. I say “near-total,” because I did manage to salvage a bit of it and plug that into “The Hell Poem.” But it wasn’t until I had written 60 pages of that Purgatory poem that I realized it was a failure. That failure aside, however, once I was a few sections deep in “The Hell Poem,” I asked Christine Sajecki, with whom I had worked previously, if she would be willing to make some paintings for it, and I still can’t believe she said yes. The paintings she made are wonderful. At bottom, I think I’ve always wanted to say something worthwhile about the world and the people in it, and the ascendance of Trump, because he is a caricature and makes all around him caricature, made the effort to say something a little easier. But, really, I’m still trying.

A Year in Reading: Kaveh Akbar

It’s been a long 2017. So much of being a poet as I understand it is about maintaining a permeability to wonder, and that’s been difficult work in a year spent in the long shadow of a fascistic regime, a year in which the earth has grown increasingly desperate in its attempts to warn us about the damage we’re doing to it.

The (perhaps feeble ((but noble))) balm—a year of books, richer than any I can recall. It’s like the world of poetry knew we’d need it to rise up and carry us, to orient us toward our livable tomorrows. Poets are watchers, wonderers. And they have the magical ability to make us realer than we can make ourselves. Elizabeth Alexander writes: “We are of interest to one another, are we not?” I like thinking of poems as little empathy tablets, granting us access to (and compassion for) lived experiences unlike any we’ll ever know firsthand.

Here are some new books (mostly poetry, listed in no particular order) from the past year that have helped me wander and wonder from one day into the next:

Frank Bidart – Half-Light

Anaïs Duplan – Mount Carmel & the Blood of Parnassus

Marwa Helal – I Am Made to Leave I Am Made to Return

Traci Brimhall – Saudade

Layli Long Soldier – Whereas

Rachel McKibbens – blud

Sahar Muradi – [Gates]

Steph Burt – Advice from the Lights

Maggie Smith – Good Bones

Cait Weiss Orcutt – Valleyspeak

Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular

Nicole Tong – How to Prove a Theory

Craig Morgan Teicher – The Trembling Answers

Nicole Sealey – Ordinary Beast

Danez Smith – Don’t Call Us Dead

sam sax – Madness

Javier Zamora – Unaccompanied

Marcus Wicker – Silencer

Alex Dimitrov – Together and By Ourselves

Ruth Awad – Set to Music a Wildfire

Bill Knott – Selected Poems

William Brewer – I Know Your Kind

Morgan Parker – There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé

Carl Phillips – Wild Is the Wind

Marie Howe – Magdalene

Ghayath Almadhoun – Adrenalin

Patricia Smith – Incendiary Arts

Tyree Daye – River Hymns

Gabrielle Calvocoressi – Rocket Fantastic

Mai Der Vang – Afterland

Sarah Browning – Killing Summer

Alessandra Lynch – Daylily Called it a Dangerous Moment

Chen Chen – When I Grow Up I Want to Be A List of Further Possibilities

Adrian Matejka – Map to the Stars

Finn Menzies – Brilliant Odyssey Don’t Yearn

Eve L. Ewing – Electric Arches

Shane McCrae – In the Language of My Captor

Ghassan Zaqtan (trans. by Fady Joudah) – The Silence that Remains

Franny Choi – Death By Sex Machine

Laura Kasischke – Where Now: New and Selected Poems

Subject to Change: Trans Poetry & Conversation

Megan Stielstra – The Wrong Way to Save Your Life

Hanif Abdurraqib – They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

Melissa Febos – Abandon Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates – We Were Eight Years in Power

Alissa Nutting – Made for Love

Roxane Gay – Hunger

Kevin Young – Bunk

Wendy Xu – Phrasis

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

2017 National Book Award Finalists Announced

It’s officially fall, so that means it’s officially book award season, and nothing marks its advent like naming the National Book Award finalists. Winners will be announced in New York City on November 15.

The short list is headlined by Jesmyn Ward, whose Sing, Unburied, Sing appeared in two recent essays on our site. Four of the five Fiction finalists made appearances in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews.

Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:

Fiction:

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman (excerpt)
The Leavers by Lisa Ko (excerpt; A Most Anticipated Book)
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (People Without a Home: On Min Jin Lee’s PachinkoA Most Anticipated Book)
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado (A Most Anticipated Book)
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Literature’s Inherited Trauma: On Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, SingSearching for Complexity: Motherhood in FictionA Most Anticipated Book)

Nonfiction:

Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (excerpt)
The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances FitzGerald (excerpt)
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (Surviving Trump: Masha Gessen Wants You to Remember the Future)
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (excerpt)
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean (Surviving Koch: Nancy MacLean Wants You to Ignore Donald Trump)

Poetry:

Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 by Frank Bidart (The Poet and the Movie Star: An Evening with Frank Bidart and James Franco)
The Book of Endings by Leslie Harrison
WHEREAS by Layli Long Soldier (Start With These Five New Books of Poetry)
In the Language of My Captor by Shane McCrae
Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems by Danez Smith (The Nu-Audacity School of Poetry)

Young People’s Literature:

What Girls Are Made Of by Elana K. Arnold
Far from the Tree by Robin Benway (excerpt)
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez (excerpt)
Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia (excerpt)
American Street by Ibi Zoboi (excerpt)

2017 National Book Award Longlists Unveiled

Book award season enters high gear as the National Book Award finalists have been released in a series of four longlists consisting of ten books apiece. Five finalists in each category will be announced on October 4, and winners will be announced in New York City on November 15.

The fiction list includes an eclectic mix and features eight women, including Jennifer Egan for her long-awaited new novel.

You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction longlist here first, of course, as they appeared in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews.

Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:

Fiction:

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman(excerpt)
The King Is Always Above the People: Stories by Daniel Alarcón 
Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig (excerpt)
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (Egan’s Year in Reading)
The Leavers by Lisa Ko (excerpt)
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (People Without a Home: On Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko)
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado 
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (excerpt)
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (“Haunted by Ghosts: The Millions Interviews Jesmyn Ward“, “Literature’s Inherited Trauma: On Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing“)
Barren Island by Carol Zoref

Nonfiction:

Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (excerpt)
The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances FitzGerald (excerpt)
Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman, Jr. (excerpt)
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (read our interview with Gessen)
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I. by David Grann (excerpt)
No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need by Naomi Klein (excerpt)
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean (read our interview with MacLean)
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein (excerpt)
The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson (excerpt)
Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young

Poetry:

Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 by Frank Bidart
When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen
The Book of Endings by Leslie Harrison
Magdalene by Marie Howe
Where Now: New and Selected Poems by Laura Kasischke
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier (Nick Ripatrazone on Layli Long Soldier)
In the Language of My Captor by Shane McCrae
Square Inch Hours by Sherod Santos
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (Nick Ripatrazone on Danez Smith; excerpt)
Afterland by Mai Der Vang

Young People’s Literature:

What Girls Are Made Of by Elana K. Arnold
Far from the Tree by Robin Benway
All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry
You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (excerpt)
Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia
American Street by Ibi Zoboi

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